The Ammonihahite Women and the Disappearing of Gendered Violence
There was a fatal shooting in downtown Denver last week in a building that many of my friends and clients work in. I had actually been in an hours-long strategy meeting in that same building just the day before so it was a deeply upsetting event. Luckily none of my friends were harmed but a woman was murdered in a brutal act of domestic violence.
As I followed the unfolding story, I became more and more frustrated in the way the media was reporting the tragedy. This woman had filed for divorce, left her hometown which she had previously been mayor of, got a new job as the executive director of a non-profit and started over. And yet our local media reported the story as, “Couple dies in apparent murder-suicide”. The way the media reports on intimate partner violence has long been a complaint of domestic violence advocates. The term “murder-suicide”, for example, romanticizes a horrific act of violence, conjuring up images of star-crossed lovers and Romeo and Juliet. But I was particularly bothered by the paper’s use of the word “couple”. Here is a woman who had done everything within her power to be un-coupled. She filed for divorce, she moved to a different city and still she was tied to the very man who took her life.
Perhaps I was sensitive to this type of insult this week because I was simultaneously preparing to teach Alma 14 to my Gospel Doctrine class. This is the chapter where, after Alma preaches a sermon about the priesthood to the Ammonihahites, they throw the wives and children of all the male believers into a fire. There have been many difficult Book of Mormon chapters to teach but this one made me downright angry. The horrific deaths of these women is sandwiched between a sermon that was addressed to “Brethren” and where the existence of women isn’t even acknowledged and the miraculous salvation of all the male characters. We’re also presented with the unsatisfying, and frankly, problematic theodicy from Alma that these women and children had to die so they could stand as a testament against the Ammonihahites. The modern materials for the lesson aren’t much better. The lesson plan developed by the Church focuses primarily on Alma 13 and a doctrinal discussion of priesthood which, in the Mormon context, is limited to men. While the lesson acknowledges that “other believers” were persecuted, it makes no mention of who those believers actually were and it primarily focuses on the suffering of Alma and Amulek. I read through several other lesson supplements, probably not so coincidentally all written by men, and none spent any time on the story of the women and children who were martyred for their belief in the words of Alma. Unsurprisingly, the only lesson plan I read that addressed the violence against women in this story was the one published on the Mormon Woman Project website which just proves how desperately women’s perspective is needed.
So often gendered violence is ignored, sanitized and made invisible. As my story above illustrates, this is not just a problem in Mormon-dom. But if we want to do better as a culture–and I take our leaders at their word when they say that violence against women will not be tolerated–then we have to meaningfully engage with the hard parts of our scripture and history. There are things we can learn from the story of the Ammonihahite women. I am not the first to point out that perhaps one of the lessons of the Book of Mormon is that the oppression of women is detrimental to a society. If we want to do better then we can’t just skip over the suffering of women and children and move on to the cool story of the awesome missionaries who used the power of God to break out of jail. Sure, it’s an easier story to tell but to focus on that alone dishonors the sacrifice of the victims and disappears their story into the violent act perpetrated against them.
So next time you’re reading Alma 14, sit with the Ammonihahite women for awhile. Witness their faithfulness in accepting the words of Alma, even though those words weren’t for them. See them as they are separated from their husbands and fathers and thrown mercilessly into a fire. Feel their pain and suffering and do so without providing a justification for why their suffering was necessary. Mourn these souls. And then resolve to see the suffering of other victims and to comfort instead of looking away.